Rise of 'woman power' in S-E Asia?
Will Megawati's victory strengthen the hands of Wan Azizah or Suu Kyi?

By Yang Razali Kassim

WHILE everyone was busy fixing their eyes on the electoral scoreboard, showing the surge by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, better known as the PDI-P, a call came from Kuala Lumpur for Megawati Sukarnoputri. It was from Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who now leads the opposition National Justice Party, or Keadilan, in Malaysia.
Dr Wan Azizah had called to congratulate Megawati for her PDI-P's performance at the polls. But what that phone chat has done is to draw attention to something more significant, a new regional phenomenon -- the rise of woman power in South-east Asian politics.

There are four leading personalities who personify this regional phenomenon. In a way, it was started by the Philippines' Corazon Aquino. Then came Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, followed by Dr Wan Azizah and now Megawati.

Apart from being women, they share one other thing -- all of them were thrust into politics by circumstances. Cory Aquino was propelled into the centre of a revolution when her husband was assassinated by political foes in the Marcos regime. Suu Kyi, daughter of a major national figure in Myanmar history, left the comfort of her home in England to fight against what she saw as political suppression.

Dr Wan Azizah found herself taking up the cudgels after her husband was arrested and jailed for what she still regards as a political conspiracy to prevent Anwar from becoming premier. Ms Megawati was persuaded to leave her family's political hibernation when she saw that the original PDI needed a helping hand to face the strong Golkar machinery.

Of the four, Mrs Aquino went on to capture power, but she stepped down after a term to make way for a new leader. Her unexpected role in providing national leadership at the most crucial moment in her country's politics has given hope to people like Ms Suu Kyi, Dr Wan Azizah and Ms Megawati that history may march in strange ways to favour womanhood.

It is, however, Ms Megawati who has found this to be true so far. While Ms Suu Kyi is still struggling with a tough military-led government and Dr Wan Azizah has yet to prove her mettle in political combat, Ms Megawati has successfully stormed to a hair's breadth of capturing the national leadership, toppling the once mighty Golkar along the way.

If she goes on to take the presidency, she will be the second woman politician to lead a country.
But the difference between her and Mrs Aquino is that Ms Megawati will lead the world's third largest democracy and the world's largest Muslim state. That is an awesome prospect for a woman whose main claim to the art of managing politics and statecraft are lunchtime stories by her father, Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno.

Not surprisingly, she's still not yet there in terms of being a second Aquino. Firstly, her PDI-P may have all but swept the lead in terms of electoral votes. However, given Indonesia's complicated electoral system, her PDI-P must first secure 51 per cent of the seats in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), either on its own or through PDI-P-led alliances.

She's got 38 per cent so far. Only if she pulls it off can she claim first right to the presidency. But then, in terms of legislative seats, Golkar is really not that far behind. Although the PDI-P seems to have the edge, Golkar can also forge alliances to secure the majority.

Ms Megawati's biggest stumbling block, however, is resistance from Indonesia's traditional ulamas, or Islamic scholars. Although many of them are linked to a friendly party, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) of Gus Dur, they have an old fatwa or edict that does not favour Indonesia being led by a woman president.
As this columnist has found out, Gus Dur is not prepared to ignore the ulamas' stand, although he personally has no problem with Megawati becoming president. So at this point, the prospect of a second Mrs Aquino is still hazy.

But even if she doesn't end up as president, Ms Megawati will still be a major factor in Indonesian politics, given the strong legitimacy she has gained from the people. The PDI-P has stolen the lead, not because of the urge for democracy per se, but because people are tired of the old system and want change.
Ms Megawati symbolises that yearning for change. However, for the millions of sentimental Indonesians, it is not Ms Megawati that they see, but the image of Sukarno.

Indeed, Indonesia in crisis has led many to feel a deep sense of a "power vacuum". It is this vacuum which the matronly Ms Megawati fills.

But should fate not be with her and the presidency slip from her hand, Ms Megawati still possesses one huge asset which nobody can match: her potential to play midwife in the birth of a new Indonesia.
Of course, this raises other questions: what will her emergence mean for the political fortunes of either Dr Wan Azizah or Ms Suu Syi? Will their hands be strengthened by a Megawati victory, especially for Dr Wan Azizah who is bracing for a fight in the national elections this year or next? And how would ulamas in Malaysia feel should Dr Wan Azizah win?

But whether the wider population in those countries feel any inspiration at all by the rise of Ms Megawati is a moot point.